“The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only one you have.” Anna Quindlen
The world clock on my phone has more time zones than one family should have. In the last month I have added Chang Mai, Lisbon, Geneva, Shanghai, Minneapolis and Osaka. Phil and I in Portugal, our youngest daughter connecting through Shanghai en route to visit her brother in Chang Mai, even our little grandson took his first transatlantic flight to Geneva with his parents. He took his first real steps without us, got slivers in his feet and legs at a chalet in the French Alps, touched his tiny hand to the door of a hot stove, get locked in his bedroom at the AirBnB, and crossed the French Alps via “Cime de la Bonette” (the top of the bonnet) in a rented car, driven by his father on foggy, icy roads without guard rails.
I am happy to report the three of them arrived home safely with this tragic-comedy to tell. Our youngest daughter returned to Chicago last week, back from her adventures. Our son, having moved on to Kyoto is ready to welcome his girlfriend for a visit.
I have to admit, being on different continents as a family is a little unsettling. We connect via What’s App and FaceTime, texts and emails, but now that I am home, I want everyone else home too. I will have to wait until Christmas when our son completes his travels with Remote Year , a work abroad program for adults. He is in Asia traveling to Viet Nam, Thailand, Japan and Malaysia. I try not to be the worried mother, but some nights around 2:00 am, my thoughts spin on the gerbil wheel of imagined misfortune. Could the stray dogs in Hanoi have rabies? Is the tummy trouble and fever something more serious than just a traveler’s nuisance that will pass? What can I do to help when I am thousands of miles away?
All things considered, what makes us want to travel? To leave the comfort of our cozy homes, our comfortable routines to make this shift. Perhaps we do it to see places very different from our own part of world. Take the road less traveled, or get off the road altogether. It is a privilege to have travel experiences that expose us to new vistas, cuisine, and cultural history. It surely has to be more than simply checking off another item on our bucket list. Why do you travel?
I like the idea of experiencing new biomes, distinct biological communities of plants and animals that live together. They can be found across the world in a shared physical climate, their names familiar to us like tundra, taiga, and chaparral. And we have our own microbiome to protect and diversify to stay healthy, that diverse mix of flora and fauna that reside in our gut that can be changed by exposure to new organisms–through travel. Our biome is what makes us who we are–both inside and out.
Google maps, guide books, travel websites and forums make it easy to plan our trips so precisely we feel like we know the place before we leave home. We can compare our itinerary against the star ratings and reviews of others who agree it is perfect for couples, families or romance. We know our hotel room will be on the quiet side of the building, have Wi-Fi and serve a buffet breakfast. (I am only four reviews away from my Senior Contributor Badge on Trip Advisor!) I resist some of this–to leave something to chance and serendipity.
As we planned our trip to Portugal, we knew we would be meeting up with Phil’s sister and husband in Lisbon, rent a car to drive to the Algarve coastal region in the south where we had rented a house. But what to do on our own for a week? My research led me to Norberto Pinto of Enne Tours–guided hiking trips in northern Portugal. This looked like just the thing for us. We would not be carrying our gear, and Norberto would pick us up each morning, hike with us, arrange for local meals and comfortable lodging along the way. Phil and I calculated the daily distances and elevation changes for each of the four days we would be hiking. Could we do 10 to 12 miles a day with a 700 meter change in elevation? Will there be toilets? What if I break my ankle the first day? Or can’t take another step to finish? And what’s wrong with taking it easy from the comfort of a cruise ship or tour bus? For me it’s a bit of a rebellion against aging and a challenge to my physical self. I don’t want to give that up. It is a good feeling when you can rely on your own two feet to get around, orient yourself on a real map, and feel good and tired at the end of the day.
Our days on the trail were the best. We set out in the midmorning and finished by late afternoon. Each hike had its own natural history lesson. We walked in temperate deciduous forests, in high plateau and through vineyards being harvested by workers who picked grapes 12 hours a day for a 40 euros. We trekked along ancient Roman roads, up to a mountain top chapel, past waterfalls and rocky cliffs and through small villages that teetered on ruin. It let us glimpse in to a disappearing way of life that so many of us now crave. Self-sufficiency. We saw old women, left behind by children who moved to cities to find work, and continue a lifestyle largely unchanged over 500 years. As we approached one of these villages, we were greeted by the barking of shepherd dogs and a tiny black-clad woman inquiring about her goats. Like Norberto’s grandfather, these people get their water from a community well, know how to make wine from grapes, press olives for oil, tend a small plot to raise cabbage for soup and corn which is dried in the sun and ground to make bread. They know the most effective way to butcher a pig, use every part of it and make sausages which they cure in the smoke from their chimney.
I felt awkward standing next to this woman with clear eyes and a wise face, her apron peeking under her polar fleece jacket and skirt, me in my bright high tech hiking clothes. A friendly smile my only means of communication with her. The outward thing we shared was a walking stick. Although she was likely 20 years older, she was physically able to carry on, taking care of her home and garden, getting around the uneven terrain of the abandoned village, on her own two feet. Norberto said she was the mother of six sons that sometimes come and help with the heavier farming chores when they can. That she likely had never traveled more than a few miles from this place she had always known. I imagined the feeling of being left behind by children who had jobs in cities, now taking care of their own families. What it must be like to hang on to the only life you know, maintaining your independence and dignity, but in isolation, no longer the center of family life. That she will live her life the way it has always been.